Moments With A Rattler

view of Blackrock Summit Shenandoah National Park

The wide jaw of the timber rattler who crossed my path at 3548 feet caught my attention first. Not the snout peeking out of the foliage. Nor the black forked tongue whipping in and out to taste the air. My eyes were focused on the primary-colored cardinals, goldfinch, and indigo bunting flitting about when the snake ensured it was safe to leave its protective cover. I didn’t see the thick body divide the grass “as with a comb,” the way Emily Dickenson described. There was no rhythmic shaking of a rattle. Nor was there slinky music nor cartoonish hissing. Not even the rustling of a leaf. No, it was most definitely the wideness of the jaw against the gray stone step descending towards Big Meadows Lodge in the Shenandoah National Park. Wavy, scaly bands of dark brown and lighter brown-edged with white followed that jaw. It glided its 7 or 8-foot length across my path. The thick long body moved with an authority I wish I possessed.

Had I looked away at the noisy people getting out of their cars or bugs to swat, I would have stepped in front of or even on it. I say it. I’m not sure if it was a he or she. I’m going to call the snake her. I would have stepped on her. The rest of that day would have been entirely different for both of us. But I didn’t. I saw her in all her wide-jawed snakey glory.

me in front of Lewis Falls Shenandoah National Park

I realize there are many feelings around snakes. I get it, and I don’t need to recount the sorted history here. But I don’t mind coming across snakes. Maybe it’s because of walking with my grandmother—the words she used to tell me when we encountered bees or snakes played in my head. “You stay calm. They stay calm.” I repeated this to myself as I watched from the step above the timber rattler. Holding that moment with my gaze.

There is so much potential beauty in moments. They can also possess mundane doldrums and great pain as well. I’d had several moments on that Lewis Falls loop around Big Meadows. Rain in the Virginia mountains. The waterfall. The flora. The mama deer with her three healthy babies having their lunch. I tend to walk quietly. I startle dogs all the time because they don’t hear me coming. And the mama and babies couldn’t have cared less as I approached.

mama deer Shenandoah National Park

When I was five, I went to a sleep-away camp in Maine for the summer while my mom studied in Boston for a certification she needed. One of the counselors took an interest in me. She was tall. To be fair, everyone was taller than me. I was the youngest by two years, but she was the tallest of the tall. She would often lift me onto her shoulders and walk around pointing to and talking about things in the woods, much like my grandmother. She taught me how to move quietly. How to plant and lift my feet so my steps didn’t make a sound, even in the previous autumn’s dead leaves. Most importantly, she taught me to observe and not disturb the quiet moments.

three fauns Shenandoah National Park

My footsteps on the path didn’t scare off the mama deer. Her breathing was calm and even. Her ribcage was outlined through her reddish-tan fur. She needed the lunch she was munching on. One at a time, her babies came out of the trees and used her body for nourishment. The babies were strong and healthy. They were curious and hungry. It was my first time seeing a mama with three babies in person. Not sure how much time had passed as I stood there. Enough to think of grabbing some photos. In the distance, some twigs snapped, pebbles stumbled across rocks, and voices wove through the trees. The moment was lost. One at a time, they moved on.

mama and baby deer Shenandoah National Park

Further down the path, I met a woman who worked for the Appalachian Trail. She was off for the day and going to a challenge she hadn’t yet taken on. She had worked for various national parks and sections of the AT over the years, and we chatted—two women alone in the woods. Groups came by, offering us “help” to reach our destinations. She asked if that happened to me, too, being offered help by groups when I was alone. The answer is yes, but sometimes I appreciate the conversation when I’m solo. Often the info provided is valuable. I asked her the most essential place to visit since I was in the park for a short time. She said Blackrock Summit in the southern section and to go first thing in the morning.

I could have just nodded and continued along my way when I saw her coming. I was tired from my nine-hour drive the day before. Even at that elevation, it was in the 80s with a high dew point, and my stomach was grumbling. But she was happy to share her time and advice. The deer and the woman slowed my hike, delaying me and timing my day just right for the snake to cross my path.

view from Blackrock Summit Shenandoah National Park

Moments pass us by all the time. We don’t know if it’s the last time we’ll see or speak to someone. Or if it’s the only time we’ll visit a certain place. So often, we can’t remember what we said or felt. Perhaps life had gotten the better of us, and we didn’t seize those seconds, storing them for later. Maybe our brains were distracted by the millions of things pressed upon us by life. Demands screaming in our heads. Pressure to achieve, reach, act—all the to-dos on our lists. We have to survive. We have to pay bills and feed families and keep lights on. Perhaps we’d go insane trying to capture all these little moments all day long. Do we need to ignore or forget some in order to have enough bandwidth to simply eek by? Or is there a balance for being in the small moments without being consumed by them?

I was out with friends in high school and ran into the grocery store for something. I don’t remember what. I do remember I had the PSATs the next morning (I’m severely dyslexic, and tests STRESS me out), and that day had broken up with some guy, and something was going on with my father (there was always something going on with my father), and I was not okay. I distinctly remember not being okay. My head was down. My spirit was down. A gentle voice behind me said, “Aren’t those beautiful.” Commanding me to look up. There was a display of flowers for sale. They were beautiful. I looked at them for what felt like hours and drank in deep breaths. I turned to her and said, “Yes.” Then I checked out with my whatever and made my ride wait as I watched people exit the Big Y. I didn’t see her leave. Maybe she went back because she forgot something. Perhaps she stopped to pick out some of those flowers. Either way, we drove on. That dumb guy wasn’t important. He wasn’t my person. Those PSATs were what they were. But they most definitely didn’t gauge my intelligence or knowledge, and I’ve had a whole life of learning and experiences since then. And my father moved away soon after, easing that particular pressure. But to glean a sentiment from Maya Angelou, I remember how that woman made me feel.

me at Blackrock Summit Shenandoah National Park

As hard as that day in high school felt, time, things, and emotions moved on. But I remember that woman and those flowers. Life has been hard, challenging, and beautiful. That woman reminded me to look up. That camp counselor showed me how to observe. My grandmother taught me to stay calm. The woman on the trail delayed my walk and offered advice that turned out to be an utterly aching and breathtaking view the next morning. All these moments with these women and the mama deer culminated with spotting the wide jaw of the snake crossing my path and me waiting for the end of her tail to see the rattle. It was smaller than I expected for her size. I didn’t think to take out my phone for photos. So often, I don’t in moments like these.

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